Fiction

Making Faces, by Amy Harmon

“There’s a lot I don’t understand, but not understanding is better than not believing.” Ambrose Young

Yesterday someone asked this question on Facebook: “If an alien came to earth, what is one book you would recommend that explains why books exist?” I immediately went through my mental file of favorites. Which one would I choose? My old standbys, Jane Eyre or Cold Sassy Tree? Or one of my newer beloveds, Entitled or Happiness for Beginners?

Now there is an additional one I would consider–Making Faces by Amy Harmon. An absolute triumph of a book that I will say right now is going to get a 10 star rating by the end of this review. (Unapologetic spoiler alert.)

It’s a few months before 9/11 in a small Pennsylvania town. High school wrestler Ambrose Young is the star. He’s exceptionally handsome, polite, sensitive, and a hard worker. He’s also humble, helps his dad at the bakery, stands up for others, and Fern Taylor has loved him since they were kids. Fern, who was blessed with a mass of red hair, freckles, and a diminutive boyish figure. Add in the glasses and braces and it’s no wonder Fern suffers from “UGS.” Ugly Girl Syndrome.

But Fern is too busy to focus on herself. Bailey Sheen, her first cousin, next door neighbor, and best friend in the whole world depends on her. Bailey, as upbeat and charismatic as they come, suffers from Muscular Dystrophy, and its only getting worse. Like Fern, Bailey also reveres Ambrose Young, but his reasons are different. Ambrose is a true inspiration and a physical representation of something Bailey will never be. Girls love Ambrose and the town adores him. Bailey’s body is rapidly weakening and he’ll be lucky to see his twenty first birthday.

The events of 9/11 affect everything. Flight 93 has crashed only a few miles away. The nation is on high alert. Patriotism intensifies and priorities change. Ambrose decides to enlist after graduation, convincing his four closest friends to do the same. When their tour is over, only Ambrose comes back. But he is a different man now. Broken, bitter, traumatized, and disfigured, only those who saw him for more than his looks and accomplishments can help him heal. It’s Fern and Bailey to the rescue.

The rest you will have to discover on your own. Making Faces is one of those near-perfect books where the stars aligned in its creation. You will fall in love with Fern, Bailey, and Ambrose–one of the most heartwarming literary trios I’ve ever encountered. Their strengths and inherent goodness will stay with you for a very long time and Amy Harmon’s writing has a quality to which every author should aspire. I loved this book in every way possible.

10/10 Stars

Uncategorized

January 2023 Reading Wrap Up!

January was a CRAZY month of reading. Thirty six books, my friends! You will recognize some from previous reviews, others are appearing here for the first time. I discovered some great authors and several exciting thrillers. Here’s the overall group with 1-5 star ratings in chronological order. Even I can’t believe it.

FAVORITES: (links to their reviews)

Entitled, by Cookie Boyle (Fiction, Magical Realism) (FAVORITE OF THE MONTH)

Whiskey When We’re Dry, by John Larison (Historical Fiction, Adventure)

Restart, by Gordon Korman (Young Adult)

The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld (Mystery, Suspense)

Books 11-13 of the Country Club Murders, by Julie Mulhern (Cozy Mystery)

More Than We Can Tell, by Brigid Kemmerer (Young Adult)

SURPRISES OF THE MONTH:

Regrets Only, by Kieran Scott (releases March 7, 2023!) (Mystery)

A Killer Strikes, by Georgia Rose (Mystery): A small village in England is rocked on its heels when an entire family is murdered. Their neighbor, a quiet woman who trains and boards horses, takes it upon herself to find out what really happened. Great ending!

If You Build It, by Dwier Brown (Memoir)

The Unteachables, by Gordon Korman (Young Adult) Throw the school’s most “unteachable” students together with the district’s most unmotivated teacher and you have a recipe for…a fantastic book! Gordon Korman is one of the superb authors I discovered this month.

Just A Girl, by Becky Monson (Clean Romance) A meek midday news reporter dealing with harassing emails meets a Henry Cavill-type Brit who sweeps her off her feet…at first. There are twists in this fun story and a reminder to never settle for less than you deserve. Becky Monson books are becoming fast favorites.

I Am In Here, by Creston Mapes (Christian Suspense) Hale is eighteen years old. Since a bus crash one year before he has laid still and silent in a hospital bed. He cannot communicate, but hears and sees everything, such as the increasing debt his father is in because of the smothering medical bills and the family member who wants to kill him. Really gripping! I read this in one sitting.

Hayley and the Yeti, by Laura Langa (Romance) The cover suggests a frothy story, but there is a lot of depth to this one. Hayley has accepted a traveling medical assignment in Arizona after a two year toxic relationship that’s left her questioning everything about herself. Her next door neighbor is a kind but mysterious man she calls “Yeti.” Both are slowly recovering from painful life experiences. Their friendship changes everything. This was a wonderful book! Perfect for the end of the month.

And now on to February! I’m starting off with two books: The Night Shift, by Alex Finlay, and Everything is Just Beginning, by Erin Bartels. Both are outside my comfort zone, but they’re both very good so far!

Happy Reading!

Author Spotlight, Fiction

Author Spotlight: Brigid Kemmerer

The time has come to pay tribute to Brigid Kemmerer. I just finished another one of her Young Adult books, swept up the pieces of my shattered heart, and am experiencing that familiar numbness that I always feel after saying goodbye to her characters.

Each of her YA books, Letters to the Lost, More Than We Can Tell, and Call it What You Want are stories of high school students with broken lives. Each have a guy and a girl who meet in an unusual way while grappling with his-and-her individual pain. The characters are always extremely smart, deep, sensitive, and possess an inner strength. Sometimes these traits conflict with each other. There are often issues with self-esteem and there are always parents whose choices are the cause of these challenges. But the stories are not about criticizing parents. They are a reminder that respect is earned and everyone, including parents, is going through something.

Letters to the Lost: Declan and Juliet’s story. They meet in the cemetery where Declan is doing community service and Juliet is visiting her mother’s grave, leaving behind letters she thinks no one will read. It’s spellbinding. Please click HERE to read my review and learn more about this 10 Star book.

Call It What You Want: This book is a standalone. It is Rob and Maegan’s story. Both are social outcasts. Rob is suffering the fallout from his father swindling most of the townspeople out of their savings. Maegan is unwelcome and full of regret after cheating on her SATs. They are paired up for a math assignment when no one else wants to come near them. You can read more about their story in my review HERE.

And then there is More Than We Can Tell, which I finished this morning. This is part two of Letters to the Lost. It is Rev and Emma’s story. Rev is Declan’s best friend. He’s eighteen and the survivor of abuse. His body is a map of scars and homemade tattoos of Bible verses courtesy of his cruel father, a religious zealot who can talk his way out of anything. Rev was adopted by a loving couple, Geoff and Kristin, who go above and beyond to make him feel safe and worthy, but a lot of hurt still lies buried beneath the surface. When Rev’s father tries to contact him, sending passive-aggressive messages full of emotional venom, Rev takes a walk to cool down. Sitting on a patch of grass near a church he meets Emma and her dog, Texas. Emma is dealing with an online stalker and her parents are on the verge of divorce. Two wounded young people who feel misunderstood and lonely, Rev and Emma begin meeting each evening to talk and to listen. 9.5/10 Stars

Of course there is more to all of these stories. Things escalate and emotions heighten. But the real triumph is in the characters’ development and growth. Brigid Kemmerer taps into feelings that all of us have experienced, even as adults. Feelings of being lost, unfairly treated, ignored, and underestimated. And though these young people are all victims of a sort, they must still face the consequences of their own decisions, usually being called upon to help someone else.

I highly recommend these books for anyone age 16 and older. They are masterpieces of modern fiction.

Autobiography, Nonfiction

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

This is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, starting back in 2006 when I suffered the loss of someone very dear to me. I opted instead, that year, to read Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg, about a widow recovering from the death of her husband. I’m so glad I made that decision, because The Year of Magical Thinking is not the handbook on grief that I hoped it would be. It is Joan Didion’s stream-of-consciousness outpouring, one that is disjointed, random, and very personal.

Personal is fine. There’s nothing wrong with personal, and I’m sure this book was extremely cathartic for her to write. However, the title doesn’t fit anywhere in the content and, while there are some profound thoughts about loss, they are sparse. Instead, there is also a lot of zigzagging and digging up old memories. So I have to wonder, if anyone but Joan Didion wrote this book, would it have even been published?

The reviews are very mixed. Some people applaud the disjointed writing style, saying that it is exactly how one feels after losing a spouse or partner. This is true. I wish she had explored that more, the way loss lives rent free in your mind while you’re trying to carry on with life. Other reviewers are annoyed at Didion constantly referring to her upper-class lifestyle, having been married to John Gregory Dunne, and the fabulous places she lived, visited, and dined. I agree. After being bombarded with off-the-mark anecdotes about Delmonico’s, the Beverly Hills Hotel, high-end private schools, and vacations that are beyond the reach of the common man, I found it refreshing when she talked about grabbing a burger at McDonald’s. But it wasn’t enough to buffer the very obvious showiness of privilege, which often eclipsed the tragedies she experienced in a very short amount of time. Was the end goal to appear relatable or to relate her loss? We will never know.

So, unfortunately, it didn’t have the sensitive, healing effect I expected. I didn’t find it magical, memorable, or thought-provoking. But her ardent fans will probably find it very interesting.

7/10 Stars

Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Series & Collections, Suspense

Theme: Two Unforgettable Women

When was the last time you read a book that was so immersive, you felt numb after turning the last page? What about two books in a row? Numb, reeling, in awe, emotionally exhausted in a good way…that is me right now. What makes it even more unusual is that I never even heard of either of these books until very recently.

Whiskey When We’re Dry, an incredible debut novel by John Larison, and The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld, need to go on your reading list ASAP. Are they sweet, comfortable reads? No. Both deal with unpleasant subjects. But presentation is everything and even unpleasant subjects can be handled in such a deft way that the power lies within the reader’s imagination. That, my bookish friends, is high quality writing.

Each of these stories centers around a female protagonist. Jess Harney in “Whiskey” and Naomi Cottle in “Child.” Both of them are motherless and isolated, forcing them to figure out on their own what it means to be a woman. Both have been through extreme hardship. Both use that hardship in positive ways to help others. Both sacrifice greatly.

Whiskey When We’re Dry is western historical fiction. Left alone on the family homestead in 1880’s Montana, Jessilyn Harney decides to find her last remaining relative, beloved older brother Noah. Dressed as a man and armed with above average shooting skills, she and her trusty mare, Ingrid, set off on an unimaginable adventure. Along the way, Jess encounters people of every sort, good and evil. She must defend herself, but she also learns from what she sees, tucking away that knowledge for the future. The most fascinating secondary characters are the women who come and go throughout Jess’s odyssey. Because of their limited choices, women did what they had to do to survive whether it was marriage, spinsterhood, masquerading as a man, or selling their bodies. Rich and poor, submissive and rebellious, frontier women and city women, Jess encounters them all. Knowledge and wisdom is exchanged. (The weaker sex? I think not.) The jaw-dropping ending will leave you gasping and Jess’s narrative voice is one of the best I’ve ever read.

9.5/10 Stars

The Child Finder is contemporary suspense. Naomi Cottle is a twenty-nine year old survivor of childhood abduction. She is one of the lucky ones, if you can call not knowing her parents and a deep mistrust of men lucky. But she’s alive and her foster home was a loving one. Now she is the “child finder,” a private investigator who makes it her mission to rescue missing children. She’s been hired to locate Madison Culver, who disappeared at age five from the Oregon forest. It’s been three years, so the chances she is alive are slim. Meanwhile, hidden away in an old cabin, live Mr. B and the Snow Girl. Their language is silent. Their relationship is odd. Snow Girl knows something isn’t right. There is friendship and there is terror, two things that cannot coexist forever. Some missing children are found alive and make something of their futures. Some always remain victims. The brilliance of this book is the way it shows both of these scenarios, as well as the fortitude that lies dormant within all of us until it is needed.

9.5/10 Stars

I recommend both of these books most highly. I found myself transported into other times and other worlds. They are undoubtedly raw, but the writing is magnificent. Both deserve accolades and attention.

Autobiography, Nonfiction

If You Build It, by Dwier Brown

Back in the early 1980’s two things were happening simultaneously. 1. A Canadian writer named W.P. Kinsella was launching his new book called Shoeless Joe 2. A struggling actor from Ohio named Dwier Brown was trying his hand at acting. While Kinsella’s book gained traction, Brown’s career, aside from playing “Stuart Cleary” in The Thorn Birds and being cast in a few plays, did not.

Their stories merged in 1988 when Shoeless Joe was adapted to screen as the beloved film, Field of Dreams, with Kevin Costner, then at his career apex. Dwier Brown was cast as John Kinsella, Ray’s (Costner’s) father. It’s a small but pivotal role, set in the day’s “magic hour,” making the viewer realize that Field of Dreams is about so much more than baseball.

When it was complete, not much was expected of Field of Dreams. Yes, it had Burt Lancaster in his final role and the incomparable James Earl Jones as Ray’s unlikely road trip companion, but no one could’ve guessed that this quiet little film would become the juggernaut that it is today. The Lansing farm in Iowa, where Dreams was filmed, still draws thousands of fathers and sons every year hoping to recapture the magic as they “have a catch” on that famous baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield. A diamond inspired by the mystical phrase “If you build it, he will come.”

While Dwier Brown’s role is small–he appears in some early photographs and in the last five minutes of the movie–its impact on his life has been enormous. It is this impact that his book, If You Build It, is based. Part autobiography, part behind-the-scenes of the film, Brown sensitively shows how his whole life led up to that role and the part it would play in years to come. He also adds anecdotes, snapshots of the many times that people would recognize him and share their own personal stories. Stories of men and their dads watching the movie together, feeling their bond strengthen, and stories of estranged fathers and sons feeling the need to reconnect and forgive, inspired by the movie’s message.

That is what makes this book so special. It does not focus heavily on ideal father/son relationships. It acknowledges the honest truth that all parent/child relationships are complicated, including Ray and John in the movie, Dwier Brown and his father, and his father before him. As a daughter who had a complicated relationship with my father, I found this extremely refreshing. The book is beautifully written, with a rhythmic fluidity and plenty of heart-tugging tidbits that keep your interest until the very end.

Being familiar with the film is very helpful, but not completely essential, to read If You Build It. I recommend watching the movie and reading the book, in that order. Both are very much worth your time and will restore some of your faith in family and its potential.

9/10 Stars

Memoir, Nonfiction

Theme: Embracing Our Differences

This week I’m participating in an online nonfiction read-a-thon, so I will be getting out of my comfort zone a bit. Not that I don’t like nonfiction, but I’ve enjoyed creatively told stories a lot lately.

Which brings me to two books that I read today. Both address differences–dealing with them, owning them, and embracing them.

Visual Thinking, by Temple Grandin, has been on my radar for quite a while. Temple Grandin is a fascinating woman with a unique story. Born with Autism, she has used her differences in the way she absorbs and processes information to become a pioneer in animal behavior. Her work is mainly with the meat industry, making sure that animals raised for slaughter are humanely treated. Because she is a visual thinker, which she explains in the book, she notices details that others might miss.

The part that I thought was most profound is the way she describes the “screening out” of visual thinkers in the American education system. Thanks to different government movements in the name of “progress,” teachers are now forced to teach in such a linear way that students with diverse learning can easily get left behind. Speaking as a former teacher, I wholeheartedly agree. However, the book itself was a cumbersome read. There is a lot of repetition and spiraling in the way information is presented. It is broken up into chapters, but their content doesn’t seem as individual as you’d expect. Instead, it is more of the same over and over again. For that reason I can only give it a lukewarm 8/10 Stars.

Ugly, by Robert Hoge. The youngest of five children, Robert was born in Australia in 1972. The reasons are still unclear, but he came into this world with a large tumor above his nose and misshapen legs and feet. The tumor pushed his eyes far to each side, like a fish, making depth perception and balance difficult. His crooked legs and feet made walking impossible. Intellectually, though, Robert was born a bright and inquisitive child.

This memoir is marketed to readers of all ages and, because this world and the media are so unforgiving of people who look different, Ugly is an important book. After dozens of surgeries on his face, amputations of both feet, and adjusting to prosthetic legs, Robert lives a fairly “normal” life. His journey, one with pain and humor, is an inspiring one. His unusual appearance is the first thing you notice about him, but his attitude and sensitive nature are what you remember. This is a wonderfully well-written autobiography that I highly recommend. 9/10 Stars

***Both Temple Grandin and Robert Hoge are popular speakers on the TED Talk circuit and in other public speaking settings. You can easily find them on YouTube to hear more about their lives and experiences.

Fiction, Young Adult

Restart, by Gordon Korman

If you look up author Gordon Korman on your digital library site, you’ll discover two things. Thing 1: He’s written a lot of books. Thing 2: All of his books are checked out. Now I know why.

Because I loved Restart! I just heard about it yesterday, found the audio on Hoopla, bought the Kindle version for four dollars, and am now a huge fan.

Chase Ambrose is a thirteen year old alpha male at Hiawasee Middle School. Captain of the football team, world-class bully, proud delinquent, and king of the cafeteria, Chase has got game. Or he had game. Because now Chase is suffering from amnesia, the result of falling off of his roof and landing on his stupid head. Memories of his family, friends, sports accomplishments, and a laundry list of intimidating others–all gone. Yeah…his mother left out the last part when she dropped him off at school for the first time after the accident.

Now Chase is learning things all over again. He still knows how to walk, talk, and feed himself. But he doesn’t understand why kids scatter in the hallways when they see him coming or why they pick up their lunch trays and move to a new table. His buddies, Aaron and Bear, assure him that it’s all in a day’s work as the hulking pranksters of the school.

Meanwhile, past victims of the terrible trio are skeptical and confused. Their leader is different. He’s helpful. Polite. Kind, even. What is going on? Does he know what he’s doing? Does he know what he did? Does he understand the fear he’s instilled to the point that parents have even taken their kids out of the school? And then what? Is everyone supposed to pretend like nothing happened? Chase might have amnesia, but nobody else does.

And so, throughout the school, a ripple effect begins. Everyone has decisions to make. Forgive? Forget? Embrace the new guy trapped in the body of the old guy? The guy that would shove you, humiliate you, or make you wear your mac and cheese?

Yes, it’s funny and there were plenty of times when I laughed out loud. But Restart is also about being the bigger person. Not the bigger bully, but the person who takes the high road, the person who looks in the mirror and realizes that we all have our less-than-stellar moments, the person who is wise enough to know that it takes just one good example for everything to change. To be better than it was before.

This is a story for young people and adults. It is a story for young people and adults to read together and discuss. Never heavy-handed and brimming over with humor, this book makes us realize that everyone can erase their past mistakes even if we remember them. We just need a little pause and a little humility to Restart.

9.5/10 Stars

Fiction

Entitled, by Cookie Boyle

Spoiler alert: This book is getting 10 stars.

A Disclaimer: No matter how much I praise this book, I still won’t be able to do it justice.

Now that those things are out of the way…

Think of your favorite song. Think of your favorite movie. Think of your favorite book. What do they all have in common? They speak to you on a higher level, right? Do any of your favorites have a brilliant simplicity to them? One where you find yourself asking, WHY has no one ever thought of this before? Do any of your favorites have a perfect efficiency? One where you admit that there is not one single thing you would change?

This is how I feel about Entitled.

How do I explain the basics? Entitled is a book…about a book…narrating what it is like to be a book…that houses a book…who lives among other books…who take on the personalities of their type of book…all searching for the ideal Reader to appreciate them as books.

That was fun. Now allow me to fill in the blanks.

In a San Francisco bookstore, a novel called The Serendipity of Snow waits patiently. Like every book of every genre, she longs for her forever home. It’s a home where she is cared for, where her story is appreciated and discussed, and where there are other books who she can call friends. Because, yes, books talk to each other. They comfort and compete. They expound and observe. Some think they’re superior (nonfiction.) Some are blunt (reference.) Some are vacuous (frothy romances.) Some are philosophers of experience (Westerns.)

But once a book is bought, it must acclimate. Is the new owner really committed to reading it? Will he or she treat it kindly? Will the book sit on a shelf with a decent view? Or be stuck in a dark, dusty box? Will it travel? Will it be shared, borrowed, traded, stolen, or (gulp) recycled? With few exceptions, a book is at the mercy of its owner. Serendipity will tell you…being a book can be amazing or it can be terrifying. A book must stay hopeful but also be ready for anything.

Entitled will leave you looking at books differently. You will think about the forgotten ones sitting on your shelf. (You might even think about which way they’re facing.) You will revisit the ones that are so loved they’re falling apart. You might think of books that were milestone reads, books that seemed to appear in your life at just the right time, and those who left you in a state of awe.

This seemingly simple-looking book is not simple at all. You will follow Serendipity on her journey through life. You will smile and laugh. You will gasp in disbelief. And you will be impressed. Very, very impressed.

Read it.

10/10 very worthy stars!

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Women's Fiction

Regrets Only, by Kieran Scott

Available tomorrow! January 10, 2023

Where do you go when you want to find pettiness, gossip, mayhem and murder? Look no further than the PBA (Parent Booster Association) in an upscale Connecticut town.

Regrets Only, by Kieran Scott is hilarious. A satirical look at a group of women who represent those committees we’ve pretty much all had to participate in at one time or another. There’s the Type A president, who ruthlessly clutches to her position as though her life depends on it (it does,) who overshadows and overachieves, basking in the glory of her success and leaving baffled and intimidated worker bees in her wake. That is Ainsley Aames Anderson. A triple Type A. Her name says it all.

With someone like Ainsley, you’re either a minion or an enemy. You do not question her. You do not compete with her. You certainly do not defy her. A tough lesson learned by her seemingly faithful entourage, Bee, Dayna, and Lanie. The outliers have a more difficult time. There’s working mother Nina, a successful accountant with more brains than charm, and the town’s prodigal daughter, single mom Paige Lancaster. Paige has returned to her hometown after being let go from a successful job writing crime shows in LA. She’s worldly and strong, the complete opposite of the submissive women who work with, um for, Ainsley. And it doesn’t help that Paige’s first love happens to be Ainsley’s husband.

Things fall apart at the PBA’s annual Parents and Pinot fundraising auction. By the end of the night the PBA president everyone loves to hate is dead. Suspects are everywhere. A surprising amount have access to weapons. Unsurprisingly, the blind adoration of Ainsley’s followers isn’t quite as blind as it once appeared. Using the alternating POVs of Paige, Lanie, Nina, and Dayna, we discover that few things (and people) are what they seem.

I really enjoyed Regrets Only. I’m giving it 9 stars because the ending fell a bit flat, but it’s still worth reading. It’s an honest commentary on suburban society. The seriousness and intensity at which these women view something as basic as a parent organization is extreme, yes, but not entirely untrue. We women can get a lot of things done, but the backroom plotting and politics are as old as time itself.

9/10 Stars

Christian Fiction, Fiction, Romance, Series & Collections, Women's Fiction

Riverbend Series, by Denise Hunter

Meet the Robinsons, a blended family with adult children Avery, Cooper, and Gavin. They love each other to a fault, which is lucky because they have their flaws like everyone else. But that love, and the compassion and generosity that go with it, is enough to extend to others who need their help.

Riverbend Gap is Cooper’s story. As a sheriff’s deputy in their small town, he’s always on the alert, but nothing could have prepared him for the situation he finds himself in one day. A car that recently skidded off the road now balances on the edge of a cliff. A terrified young woman sits inside, praying for a miracle. While waiting for emergency services, Cooper talks to her, calms her, and tries to keep the car from falling. This unusual meeting sets off a series of events that involve the entire Robinson family and a new arrival to their town.

Mulberry Hollow is Avery’s story. A young doctor, the only one in their small town, she works her fingers to the bone on a daily basis, tending to the needs of friends, neighbors, and hikers attempting the nearby trail. Her clinic is the only medical facility for miles. So, when she arrives at the clinic one night to find an injured hiker passed out on the doorstep, she must think fast. Who is he? Her protective family is skeptical, but Avery decides to let the stranger stay on while he mends.

Harvest Moon is Gavin’s story. Still nursing his wounds from the death of his child and a painful divorce, Gavin must now face the terrible news that his best friend has been killed in an airplane crash. His wife too. They left behind a little girl who must now deal with the loss of her parents. What will become of her? Surely her mother and father had guardians in mind should such a tragedy befall them. Fortunately, they did. Gavin and his ex-wife.

While all three of the Riverbend books have Christian aspects and happy endings, it’s the journey to those endings that make them worth reading. I have really enjoyed Denise Hunter’s books lately and have quickly added her as a go-to author. Without being too saccharine, the stories are uplifting and hopeful, with realistic characters. I’ve also read her book called The Wishing Season and am currently listening to Falling Like Snowflakes. They all deal with found family, new beginnings, and a community rallying together. If you like books with heart, you’ll want to read these.

9/10 Stars for the series

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Series & Collections, Suspense, Thriller

Rich Blood & Rich Waters (Jason Rich Series,) by Robert Bailey

Jason Rich has failed at a lot of things in life: beating his alcohol dependency, relationships with women, and living up to his father’s expectations. Despite that, and thanks to a series of tacky billboards along the highway, Jason has still drummed up his own version of success as an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer.

When Jason is forced to defend his sister after she is charged with killing her husband, everything changes. Now he must transition to criminal law, reconnect with his splintered family, and enter the grimy world of drugs, dirty cops, and murder. Not an easy task for a man already on the state bar’s radar. Rich Blood gives us lots of expository information about Jason Rich’s personality, boundaries, background, and courtroom tactics.

In Rich Waters, Jason is blackmailed into defending a fallen local hero accused of killing a cop. His personal life is a mess, but he has his allies. Always on retainer are the three ex-military Tonidandel brothers, former Screaming Eagles who double as security and friends. Plus there is Izzy, his law partner; Harry, his investigator; and Ashley, his AA sponsor. This motley crew help to keep Jason grounded and safe, but are put at risk by a powerful enemy.

Well-written legal thrillers, like this series, are a fun way to break out of my reading comfort zone. There are lots of characters to keep track of, puzzle pieces to assemble, ongoing stories, plot twists, and reveals. I’ve become pretty skilled at pinpointing killers in murder mysteries, but both Jason Rich books kept me guessing until the very end. That’s a good thing. Plus we are treated to a very multi-faceted main character who is always fighting one demon or another, whether personal or professional.

Rich Waters ended with a very sewn-up conclusion, so I don’t know if more books will appear in the series, but I, for one, would like to see others. They are fast-paced, intelligent reads. I recommend both and to read them in order.

9/10 Stars for each book and for the series.

Fiction, Historical Fiction, Memoir

December Reading Wrap Up, Monthly Favorites, 2023 Recommendations

OK! The new year is upon us! Time for some wrap ups, favorites, and recommendations for the new year!

Let’s start off with the books I read in December. It was fun to read winter and holiday-themed books. I’ve never done that before. But I’m open to anything that gets me out of my comfort zone a bit. It seems like that is when I discover authors who become favorites. Melanie Jacobson and Jane Porter were two great author discoveries in December. Jennifer Peel and Becky Monson continued their streak of fun books. Denise Hunter is quickly rising to the top of my list of authors whose works I want to revisit. And Brigid Kemmerer…I could read her books over and over again. They are that good. Ratings are based on the Goodreads 5-Star rating system.

Next, I’m posting my 2022 favorites by month. This was a tough one! There were many months when I read several that stayed with me. In the end, though, I thought about which ones really got under my skin. They are the ones I find myself constantly recommending. They made me laugh or cry. They opened up a whole new arena of thought. They are, in my opinion, extra special. These are the final 12. The Ogress and the Orphans is middle grade (ages 8-12.) What I Carry, Letters to the Lost, and Call It What You Want are considered Young Adult. (16+)

Lastly, I’m posting fifteen recommendations. I’ve seen lots of people in my online book groups asking for book recommendations for the new year. Believe me, I have MANY more than just fifteen that are worth suggesting, but in the interest of time, space, and not picking the same ones as everyone else, here they are. All of them are stand-alones (not part of a series.) All of them are fiction or historical fiction with the exception of Deaf Utopia, which everyone should read. Everyone.

I hope to post some more favorites by topic and genre in the near future. I’ve discovered some incredible books and amazingly talented authors in 2022, many of whom I’ve had the honor of communicating with through different means. One who even recruited me to join his beta reading team. (More on that in the future.) 😉

As always, these are my recommendations based on my taste, experience, filters, and tolerances. Be sure to do your own research about adult scenes, language, and age-appropriate content.

Fiction, Romance, Young Adult

Call It What You Want, by Brigid Kemmerer

Another fantastic read by Brigid Kemmerer. My goodness, I love how this woman writes!

No one wants to be defined by their mistakes. Especially as a teenager. Especially when the mistakes aren’t even his. But that is exactly what happened to Rob Lachlan, Jr. Why? Because after swindling half the townspeople (teachers, the librarian, and parents of Rob Jr.’s friends,) Robert Lachlan Sr. put a gun to his head, pulled the trigger, and failed his objective. Now he is a mumbling, drooling shell of a man who takes his meals through a tube. Meanwhile, Rob Jr.–once a high school alpha male and lacrosse champion–is the new face of a crime that left families in ruins. A crime he didn’t commit. A crime that, by proxy, took away his social status and made him an outcast. Life is pretty much in the toilet right now.

No one wants to be defined by their choices either. Unfortunately, overachiever Maegan made a bad one. Really, really bad. Tired of playing second fiddle to her golden older sister, Maegan cheated on her SATs, which caused a ripple effect to all the other test takers that day. Thank you for playing, Maegan. Here’s your new outcast badge.

But what makes these teens stand out? They are smart. Very, very smart. Not always socially smart, but definitely book smart, which is the hallmark of Brigid Kemmerer’s Young Adult characters. So when two very smart (and lonely) outcasts are rejected by everyone else to partner up for an Honors Calculus project, they have no choice but to work together.

And thus begins the story of two basically good teenagers who just want to reclaim some normality in their lives. But it’s a journey, one that involves testing boundaries of friendship, rules, and one’s own morals.

I’m leaving out a lot, but I will say that the one word that comes to mind when I read a book by Kemmerer is “brave.” This is brave writing. It’s layered. It alternates points of view, showing us the emotions and motives of both main characters. And what characters they are–brave writing calls for brave characters. Rob and Maegan have rock solid cores, refusing to let circumstances and choices beat them down, despite the detours along the way.

This is a terrific book. I highly recommend it. It’s marketed as a Young Adult novel, but I would say it is more for mature and older teens.

9.5/10 Stars

FYI: This is a book with multiple cover designs.
Cozy Mysteries, Mystery, Series & Collections

Theme: Strong Women in Mysteries

I admit it. I LOVE books and shows with highly intelligent, strong, capable women. I especially love it when those women stay true to their femininity, acting as worthy representatives of girly girls everywhere. Girls (ahem, WOMEN) with the hearts of a lioness.

This got me thinking about books I’ve read recently. Little by little I’ve been making my way through The Country Club Murder series, by Julie Mulhern. This series, and its heroine, Ellison Russell, have shot (pun intended) to the top of my list of favorite mystery series. (Just barely edging out the Her Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen. Also great!)

It’s the 1970s. Ellison Russell is a Kansas City artist, socialite, mother, trophy wife…and widow. Cars are sleeker, women are drooling over James Garner in The Rockford Files, and the world continues to modernize. Kansas City, a place that dwells in most of our blind spots, is home to a very elite crowd of men and women. A crowd who holds fiercely to their traditions. They run charities, attend large social functions, golf, play bridge and still manage to have a hierarchy within the hierarchy. They also have their own set of rules. Ellison plays by these rules. She is, after all, the wife of a prominent banker and daughter of a very wealthy couple. But she is also observant to the plights of the underprivileged. And…she has the unfortunate penchant for finding dead bodies. Her mother is not amused.

Ellison is the beating heart of these books (16 in total, I’ve read 8.) She is classy, sharp, unwavering, and very compassionate. She holds her own with her teenage daughter, Grace. She remains unruffled to her mother’s toxic barbs and stoic in the face of stubborn male misogyny. And, at her side throughout these adventures is a dashing homicide detective–the unconventionally named Anarchy Jones. This series is a prickly joy and never boring. We get so invested in Ellison as she juggles one murder after another, along with motherhood, society’s expectations, her mercurial parents, and a budding relationship with Anarchy. It’s superb!

9.5/10 Stars for the series (So far, #7–Shadow Dancing— is my favorite. But it’s best to read them in order.)

  1. The Deep End
  2. Guaranteed to Bleed
  3. Clouds in My Coffee (Yes, Ellison has a special love for the steady male in her life–her Mr. Coffee)
  4. Send in the Clowns
  5. Watching the Detectives
  6. Cold As Ice
  7. Shadow Dancing
  8. Back Stabbers (hereby ending the ones I’ve read so far at the time I write this review)
  9. Telephone Line (finished on 12/30/22)
  10. Stayin’ Alive
  11. Killer Queen (I love this title. Queen fans represented!)
  12. Night Moves
  13. Lyin’ Eyes
  14. Evil Woman
  15. Big Shot
  16. Fire and Rain (out in April 2023)

So, if I’ve only read half of the Country Club Murder series, WHY am I comparing it to Killers of a Certain Age?

Because Killers was a bummer of a certain book. But it took some thinking for me to figure out why I disliked it so much. Highly intelligent, strong, capable women? Check. Adventure? Check. Multiple things happening at once? Check.

Again, it is the 1970’s. Billie, Helen, Natalie, and Mary Alice are all plucked from obscurity to be part of an elect group of highly-trained assassins. Evolving from WWII Nazi hunters, Resistance members, and Monuments Men, this organization is so secret that its name is never mentioned. And these four women will be its first all-female team. It’s quite an honor. Even assembling them took years. They are multi-lingual, quick thinking, highly physical, and seductive. And, because they are women, they are always underestimated.

Fast forward forty years. The quartet has aged into their sixties and are approaching retirement. Only now, instead of being the hunters, they are the hunted. They need to find out who and why.

It’s a great premise. I had been looking forward to reading this book. It was a Book of the Month selection and a Goodreads awards nominee. But after spending so much time with Ellison Russell in the Country Club series, I had become accustomed to a heroine who had both class and sass. These four lacked class in a big way, hammering continual dents into their likability. They are vulgar and arrogant. They are also interchangeable carbon copies of each other. I didn’t care about any of them. And if I don’t care about any of the main characters, the plot–no matter how clever–becomes superfluous. A huge disappointment.

5/10 Stars